Tag Archives: kelly robson

Short Stack: Of Elephants & Monsters; Of Tombs, Scientists & Mars

We’re in a golden age of novellas, and what’s not to love about that? Novellas are the perfect, not-quite-bite-sized read, just right for a plane ride, a long train commute, or a few blissful hours to yourself to sit down and devour a story in one go. Assuming you’re looking for a few more books to add to your TBR pile, because who isn’t, I have recommendations for you! That’s another nice thing about novellas; they’re slender enough that you can sneak them into your towering book stack without anyone noticing it getting taller. Right?

Prime MeridianPrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was released first to backers of the novella late last year, and will be available for wide release in July. It made the 2017 Locus Recommended Reading List, which also makes it eligible for a Locus Award (voting closes soon, but there are still a few days left to make your voice heard), and it was picked up for Gardener Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction.  All with good cause; it’s a fantastic novella. Mars lies at its heart, and the intersecting stories of two women orbit around it. For Amelia, Mars is in her future. At least she tells herself it still could be, though every day her dream of leaving Earth and going to the Red Planet seems to be getting farther away. She’s broke, with no funds to buy her passage off planet, and barely enough money to make ends meet – living with her sister, selling her blood for cash, and working as a rent-a-friend, providing companionship and conversation for those with the means to pay. One of Amelia’s clients is an aging actress, and for her, Mars is in the past. Hers is a cardboard Mars though, the stuff of Hollywood magic and movie dreams. Both women’s stories are stories of longing, and both provide a thoughtful reflection on the distance between perception and reality, whether it’s the perception of a desired object/person/place, or the outside perceptions placed on people, telling them who they should be. Neither woman’s life is what she hoped; time, expectations, and responsibilities weigh them down, but both are still working to achieve escape velocity, even if their trajectories aren’t the ones they planned. It’s a lovely and poignant story, full of genuine emotion, and for all that it is a novella about reaching for space, it is grounded and full of humanity.

Gods Monster & the Lucky PeachGods, Monsters, and The Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson, released in March, is set in the future, post ecological disaster, as humanity is just starting to recover. Banks and corporations run a complex economy, moving around debt and human capital. Plague babies, those who survived the ecological disaster, have modified bodies that might give them extra limbs like an octopus, or the powerful legs of a gazelle, and the ability to control their heart rate, adrenaline, and just about every other autonomic function. Oh, and time travel is well within humanity’s grasp. Minh and Kiki are part of a team chosen to travel back to 2000 BC to perform an ecological survey of the Tigris and the Euphrates in hopes of reclaiming the rivers in their own time. While the company that holds the monopoly on time travel technology swears up and down that time lines collapse the moment travelers leave to return to their own time, thus making it impossible to accidentally fuck up the future, both Minh and Kiki have their doubts. The timeline they find themselves in certainly feels real, as does their ability to impact it. They aren’t merely observers, they are part of events, and those events include a king who believes it is his destiny to kill monsters. Kiki and Minhwith their inhuman-looking limbs, their egg-shaped ship, and technology that looks like magic, appear just like the sort of monsters in need of killing.  Against this backdrop, Robson does an excellent job of setting up interpersonal conflict. The time travelers are pit against each other, and their environment, and it is a joy to watch each character evolve and grow in their attitudes and relationships over the course of the story. The structure is clever, with two timelines converging on a single point, adding to the level of tension, and the world-building is fantastic.

The Clockwork TombThe Clockwork Tomb by E. Catherine Tobler is the fourth, and second-to-last (noooo, I’m not ready!), book in the excellent Folley & Mallory Series. This time around, we find the adventurous pair in Egypt, exploring a tomb referenced in Eleanor’s father’s journals. Despite not being the first to enter the tomb, Eleanor and Virgil have made it farther than anyone else. The tomb presents them with a series of puzzles, leading them deeper into the maze of its interior until they aren’t even certain they’re still in the mortal realm. Not only does the tomb cause them to doubt their sense of place and reality, it forces them to doubt themselves, testing their relationship and the strength of their wills in new ways. As with each new entry in the Folley & Mallory series, The Clockwork Tomb brings Eleanor a little closer to unraveling the mystery of her family’s past, and the truth of what happened to her mother and her grandmother. It also deepens Folley and Mallory’s relationship, as they come to know themselves and each other better, learning to trust each other completely in order to survive. Like the books that came before it, The Clockwork Tomb is full of rich, lush, descriptions that puts the reader right alongside the heroes on their adventure. Tobler perfectly balances action, romance, and mystery, to deliver a highly-satisfying read. I love these books as books, and at the same time, they’re full of so many wonderful visuals I keep hoping that someone will make them into movies.

Little Homo Sapiens ScientistThe Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang is at once an inversion of the story of The Little Mermaid, and a meditation on the nature of sentience, and an examination of cultural biases and the problems they cause in the field of ethnography. Most people insist on thinking of the atagati as mermaids, or sirens. They’re an aquatic peoples, certainly, and their language sounds to human ears like singing, but they are nothing at all like the fanciful stories we tell about mythical creatures with human upper halves and fish tails. They are a sentient race, with a deep history and culture of their own, and they have no place inside the boxes humanity tries to cram them into. This is the conflict at the core of The Little Homo Sapiens Scientists. Dr. Cadance Mbella is one of the few humans who has managed a rudimentary understanding of the atagati language, and even then, there’s so much about them she doesn’t know. Almost everyone else around her seems unable to let go of their preconceived notions about what the atagati should be, insisting on seeing them through the lens of human culture. As a result, they dismiss them as a lesser species based on their own inability to understand them, or assume – like humans – their prime interest must be in attack and conquest. When the military captures an atagati who calls herself Aioëe, Caddie is roped into being a translator, interrogating the atagati so the military can better understand their supposed enemy. Caddie finds herself confiding in Aioëe, feeling a connection that may or may not be one-sided. She helps Aioëe escape, but she can’t stop thinking about her, and all she doesn’t know about the atagati and longs to learn. She hears a rumor of a man who has harnessed medical technology to transform humans into atagati, however the procedure leaves them unable to communicate, and with only a short time to live. Caddie decides to risk it, hoping against reason that she’ll be able to find Aioëe again and, even voiceless, make herself understood. The parallels to The Little Mermaid are obvious, but Hunag up-ends the traditional story by de-centering humanity, making it something to be left behind, instead of the ultimate goal the hero desires. Through the lens of two species coming into contact, the story challenges the colonial mentality of assuming cultural superiority, and confronts the problem of looking at others through a framework that doesn’t match their lived reality. It’s a beautifully told story, with thoughtful underpinnings, and packs a punch.

The Only Harmless Great ThingThe Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, published in January, brings together the imagined mythology of elephants, and a take on the true history of the Radium Girls who unwittingly poisoned themselves painting matches and watch dials with luminous paint, leading to their slow and painful deaths. Topsy, a former circus elephant, famously publicly executed after killing a spectator, is part of a long, matrilineal line of elephants stretching back to prehistoric time. She carries the memory of her people, in stories passed down from mother to daughter, including the horrors visited on elephant kind by humanity. The latest horror is humans teaching elephants to wield paintbrushes so they too can paint clock dials with luminous paint, consigning them to the same terrible fate as the women already rotting from the inside out. With the various threads it weaves together, The Only Harmless Great Things is a story about stories. Narratives shape our lives, define us as a people, help us make sense of the world, and are sometimes used as a survival mechanism, both literally and figuratively. Tricksters of old steal and seek and horde stories to build power and sometimes to save lives, and in modern times, tricksters of another kind deploy stories to get their way, increase their wealth, and offload their problems. Bolander weaves these threads together seemingly effortlessly – the myths told by the elephants, the story of Topsy , the story of Regan, one of the Radium Girls, and the story of Kat, a translator who, years after the Radium disaster, is tasked with telling a story that will redeem the public image of elephants by convincing them to become the guardians of irradiated land, even after everything humans have done to them. The language is stunning, the kind that guts you and leaves you breathless, and the story is both utterly satisfying and leaves you craving more.

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An Interview with Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new Gothic Horror novelette, A Human Stain. To get things started, I will shamelessly crib some notes from Kelly’s author bio…

In 2015, Kelly Robson’s first fiction publications appeared in major Science Fiction markets Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, and in the anthologies New Canadian Noir, In the Shadow of the Towers, and License Expired. Her work has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Prix Aurora Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and the Sunburst Award. After years in Vancouver, she now lives in Toronto with her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica.

Human StainWelcome! Without giving too much away, what can readers expect to find within the virtual pages of A Human Stain?

A Human Stain is a lesbian gothic horror set in a remote Bavarian alpine schloss in 1905. Thematically, structurally, and in many of its plot elements, the story is the evil twin of my 2015 novella Waters of Versailles. It’s very dark indeed. Ellen Datlow says it’s one of the ickiest stories she’s ever bought for Tor.com.

The art is absolutely stunning. Did you have any input in terms of choosing the artist, or nudging them in a particular direction?

Not at all! The covers are always a complete surprise. I don’t see them until they hit social media. It wasn’t what I was expecting (it never is), but I love it. And the cover certainly lets you know what you’re going to get in this story isn’t pretty.

I’m a touch obsessed with your novella, The Waters of Versailles. Would you mind talking a bit about where the inspiration for the story came from, and how you made a story about toilets so damned amazing?

From 2008 to 2012, I wrote the wine column for Canada’s largest women’s magazine, Chatelaine. It was a great freelance gig with a lot of perks – free wine, free gourmet meals, free trips. All of a sudden I was hanging out with a lot of classy people, which is not my milieu at all. That “fish out of water” feeling definitely informed the story.

An important theme for me is the question of what people do when they are given power. Sylvian has an incredible gift – the love and devotion of a creature with complete control over water. What he chooses to do with it is kind of interesting. If I were in 1738, I one of the first things I’d miss would be toilets, so I can’t fault him at all for inventing them – I might do that too! But he gives them to people who can’t truly appreciate them, and that’s where he goes wrong.

I have two more novellas planned in this universe. They’re going to be about central heating and electricity.

I also have to ask about License Expired. You and Alyx both have stories in the anthology, which for those who don’t know is a Canadian anthology of James Bond stories, as the character is considered public domain in Canada. Did you grow up a James Bond fan? Did you and Alyx collaborate or consult each other at all as you worked on your respective stories? What was the best part of writing in Bond’s world?

Actually, Alyx and I kept our Bond stories completely secret from each other until we were both done. The reveal was a totally hoot.

My Bond story is absolutely my favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’m not a huge Bond fan, but I’ve always liked the honeypot/spy dynamic. It brims with sexy dramatic tension. I loved being able to turn that dynamic on its head.

The best part of writing in Bond’s world is it’s just one hell of a lot of fun. Having a massive canon behind the story means you can set events into motion without having to do the hard lifting of backstory, setup, or setting. You can just have fun with it, and the reader is right there, colluding with you from the first paragraph.

Shifting gears a bit, you currently live in Toronto, as do a good number of speculative fiction writers. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or science fictional about Toronto that draws authors there? What is your favorite spot in Toronto to gather inspiration, or to hang out in general?

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, so the concentration of SF writers is inevitable. But we’re a lovely coherent group because of the monthly SF readings ChiSeries on the third Wednesday of every month. When we moved to Toronto three and a half years ago, the gang there welcomed us with open arms. ChiSeries is definitely my favorite spot in Toronto!

I like to ask my fellow Canadians about the idea of “Canadian Literature”. Do you think there’s a particular theme, tone, or some common unifying thread that makes a piece of writing particularly Canadian? If so, do you find it in your own writing, either surfacing unconsciously, or something you actively work toward or against?

CanLit is generally obsessed with the unpredictability and danger of our harsh climate, unforgiving terrain, isolating vast distances, and unpredictable natural forces. I believe it’s said that the climate is always a major character in Canadian Literature.

I do write about the natural world and I can’t seem to keep from writing about water. But in my stories, it’s usually not an unspeaking force. It’s something the characters are aware of and are negotiating their lives around. I would probably never use natural or climatic disasters just to amp up the drama.

Now that A Human Stain is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or what else do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

For the past year and a half I’ve been working on a time travel novella. It’s out on submission now. *fingers crossed* Here’s the elevator pitch:

“The Last Landing of the Lucky Peach” is set several hundred years in the future. The world has just begun to recover from a mass extinction event, but the invention of time travel by secretive think tank TERN has blocked the flow of funding for long-term ecological restoration projects. Minh, an elderly fluvial geomorphologist, is enraged at having her life’s work disrupted by the illusion of quick-fix solutions to the world’s problems, so when she’s given the opportunity to travel to 2024 BCE for a past-state ecological assessment of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover TERN’s secrets.

It sounds amazing! Good luck with it, and thanks for dropping by!

Thank you for having me!!!

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